Victoria Falls: The Smoke That Thunders

Mosi-oa-Tunya is the traditional name for Victoria Falls, which straddles the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia. It translates to “the smoke that thunders.” The tremendous volume of water plunging over the falls produces not only a loud roar (the thunder) but a large cloud of spray which from a distance looks like billowing smoke.

Victoria Falls - "the smoke"We spotted the “smoke” from the falls several times as we transited through Victoria Falls and Livingstone between safari camps. Once from the air as we were flying into Vic Falls and once from our bus upstream of the the falls. Both sightings impressed the “smoke” portion of the local name on us. When we visited the falls we heard the “thunder”, completing the picture.

Victoria Falls is the name given the falls by Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone. He was the first European to view the falls and was so in awe of the falls he named them for Queen Victoria. Makes sense from his point of view, but I still prefer the name used by local tribes, especially after visiting the falls. Smoke that thunders so accurately describes the falls.

The falls are created as the Zambezi River, which at this point spreads out to about a mile in width, plunges some 350 feet over the edge of a plateau. A series of zig-zag gorges beyond the falls contain the river. It is quite an amazing sight from the ground and in this satellite image, which gives you some sense of how large the falls are.

Our trip leader, Sanction, told us that during the high water flow months of May and June the falls are almost completely hidden by the tremendous spray they produce. As it was in July, when we visited, there were portions of the walk along the falls that were too wet from the spray to dare take a photo. Neither of us carried a waterproof camera.

The Zambezi River forms the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia for a good distance above and below Victoria Falls. Livingstone is located on the Zambia side of the river and Victoria Falls is located in Zimbabwe. We stayed two nights in Victoria Falls at the Sprayview Hotel.

Victoria Falls Panorama
After the quiet of safari camps for two weeks, Victoria Falls seemed very busy and touristy – which of course it is. Many tourists visit the falls every year from around the world and there are open markets, souvenir shops, tour companies, restaurants and hotels to accommodate them.

The afternoon we arrived we visited Victoria Falls National Park in Zimbabwe. We began our visit with lunch – always a good thing- and then walked along the series of falls that comprise Victoria Falls. The area around the falls is quite lush, and even in the dry season is kept cool and damp by the spray from the falls. The area is described as a rain forest, which is just what it looks like.

We ended our day with drinks around the pool at our hotel, yes I enjoyed a gin & tonic or two, and then dinner. The evening was warm enough for us to enjoy dinner in an open-air dining room beside the pool. We felt very relaxed and completely on vacation.

Our rooms at the Sprayview Hotel were very nice and the hotel is just a short walk into Victoria Falls. We appreciated a hot morning shower, rather than mid-day showers that were  necessary in the safari camps (because that’s when we had time and hot water). The one thing missing at the Sprayview though, was the hot water bottle in my bed every evening.

Day two of our visit to Victoria Falls was open so that we could choose from a number of tourist outings. Among the choices were helicopter viewing of the falls, a walk with lions, an elephant safari, bungee jumping and zip line adventures. It was difficult to choose, but we opted for the zip line adventure. It seemed like a safer choice than the bungee jump from the Victoria Falls bridge (when a friend and Optometrist joked about the possibility of a detached retina I chickened out), plus it is combined with a walk under the bridge which sounded exciting and interesting to us.

Our zip line and bridge tour adventure was just a short bus ride and another border crossing or two away. We crossed into Zambia where our adventure started with a historical presentation about the building of the bridge, originally only a railway bridge, completed in 1905.

It was Cecil Rhodes’ grand vision to complete what he called the Cape to Cairo railway, in order to open-up the African continent to plunder, I mean colonization. The railway was completed nearly to Victoria Falls in his lifetime, but Rhodes’ death in 1902 came just three years before completion of the Victoria Falls bridge. The engineering and construction of the bridge is a fascinating story and is detailed in this excellent history.

Today the bridge contains one railway track and a tar road wide enough for one vehicle. Train traffic is infrequent, except for the historical tourist service, and only one vehicle may pass across the bridge at a time. It is also open to foot traffic.

There were six of us in the zip line and bridge tour group, all from our Overseas Adventure Travel Ultimate Africa trip. With each of us weighed, and our weight and tour choice written on our forearm (our Vic Falls tattoo!), we were helped into a climbing harness and given a safety orientation. Then we walked out to the zip line departure point. Standing on the Zambian side of Batoka Gorge, just below Victoria Falls, we would zip line across the gorge to the opposite side of the bridge and into Zimbabwe.

The procedure was the same for each of us. We stepped forward, had photos taken (I told you it was touristy) and were attached to the zip line pulley. The operator then tapped several times on the cable with a large rock, and waited for a similar tapping response from the operator at the bridge end of the cable. When the tap came, we were told to lift our feet, keep them out in front of us and given a firm push!

Wow, just wow. The height was terrifying and the view of Batoka Gorge was breathtaking. All I could do was laugh out loud and keep looking all around me. It was an absolute blast.

Pete wore his GoPro camera during the zip line and bridge tour. The video includes a bit of our safety orientation and gives you a good sense of the heights, the sights and the sounds of our adventure.

At the other end an operator came out to pull each of us in to the bridge, where we climbed onto a catwalk. From this point on we had at least one of our two safety lines attached to the bridge line at all times. We watched those after us zip across the gorge and climb on to the catwalk. There were big smiles all around.

Us on the catwalk below the Victoria Falls Bridge
Next we proceeded as a group along with our guide for a tour of the underside of the bridge. We crossed over to the other side of the bridge and walked along a catwalk back to the Zambian side of the bridge. The views were amazing and the heights dizzying. I admit though, that the sound and vibration of trucks moving over me on the bridge was the most unnerving.

Victoria Falls has lots to offer the tourist. Others in our group enjoyed the helicopter viewing of the falls and the walk with the lions. No one opted for the bungee jump, but we all had a good time. There were shopping opportunities in both shops and the open markets. The open air market was filled with many interesting handmade items.  Shopping there was not to my liking though, as I do not enjoy negotiating the cost of an item I want to purchase. Sellers were very aggressive and we made only a quick pass through the market.

The one thing we did not have time to do is enjoy high tea at the Victoria Falls Hotel. The hotel, which was built in 1904, serves high tea every afternoon on an outdoor terrace. We only had time to drive by the beautiful old hotel, so we had to leave that for another visit.

We spent our last evening in Victoria Falls, and our final evening together as a group, on a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River upstream from the falls. We made some final animal sightings, enjoyed a toast to fellow travelers and a delicious dinner all while watching the sunset. It was a fun and relaxing evening.

The next morning we flew back to Johannesburg, where we began our trip over two weeks prior. From Joburg six of our group flew home. The rest of us flew on to Cape Town where we spent several days sightseeing and wine tasting. It doesn’t seem possible, but even more amazing experiences lay ahead for us in Cape Town. We will be posting on our Cape Town adventures next. In the meantime, please enjoy our slideshow of Victoria Falls.


One Comment

  1. Vitoria’ falls are a very nice place and a wonderfull full nature!! j was here 12 years ago!!
    It’s a very agreeable travel to take time in this area**GO!!
    Best wishes**MARC(wines lover,collector and investor)